Starting shooting guard Avery Bradley returned to the floor Wednesday night for the Boston Celtics for the first time since Game Five of the 2012 Eastern Conference Semifinals after undergoing double shoulder surgery in the offseason. However even the return of their defensive stopper couldn't pull the Celtics out of their recent funk as they fell to the Memphis Grizzlies 93-83. Mike Conley led the way for Memphis, throwing in 23 points to go with his nine assists. The Celtics meanwhile got 17 points from Paul Pierce, but managed just 33 points in the middle two quarters, falling behind by 18 which proved too large a deficit to overcome despite a spirited fourth quarter comeback.
Both teams shot over 60 percent in the first quarter, but in the second the Celtics cooled off and the Grizzlies didn't. Yet despite scoring only 15 points in the frame the Celtics still were within five after a Brandon Bass three point play with 1:28 remaining in the half. Boston then ran two straight completely awful offensive sets, both resulting in turnovers and easy transition layups for Memphis. This carried over into the second half where the Celtics fell behind by 18 thanks to more poor offensive execution. The Grizzlies are an excellent defensive basketball team, but the Celtics struggles really came more from poor decision making than anything else. They played much harder on Wednesday night than they had at any point on their recent road trip. Unfortunately they weren't able to play smart as well.
Late Rally Falls Short
Following a Kevin Garnett three point play that got the Celtics back within 15 Boston went on a 17-4 run early in the fourth quarter, culminating in back to back Jason Terry three pointers that trimmed Memphis' lead to five with just under five minutes remaining. The Celtics finally dug in on defense and forced Memphis to miss 9 of 10 shots during the run and also forced them into two shot clock violations. However, after a phantom foul on Jared Sullinger that gave Tony Allen two free throws, Garnett was fouled on the other end and missed both free throw attempts. KG then fouled Marc Gasol on the other end who hit one of two stretching Memphis' lead back out to eight. The Celtics wouldn't get close again. In a game full of missed opportunities the last and biggest killed any chance for the Celtics.
Many, Celtics101 included, have questioned the effort level from Boston at many times this year. Far too often they simply look disinterested and appear to just be going through the motions, particularly on the road. However, perhaps due to Bradley's return, the Celtics really did play an inspired first quarter on Wednesday. They only had a one point lead thanks to Memphis knocking down a number of very difficult shots, but the intensity that has been missing for much of this year was clearly evident early on. The problem once again was the Celtics failing to maintain that energy. They played so hard in the first quarter, then coasted through the second and third, and only seemed to focus back in when it was really too late. Someone needs to get through to the Celtics that they must play hard for 48 minutes because, as of now, they are not getting the message.
Silver Lining – Sullinger Coming On
Doc Rivers is still searching for the right lineup combinations and it may be time to get Jared Sullinger some more minutes. The rookie forward was one of the lone bright spots for Boston during their three game losing streak in California, and he ran with the starters on Wednesday throughout Boston's fourth quarter run. He only scored two points, but was one of only two Celtics to record a positive plus/minus rating, finishing the night at +10. Jason Collins has done his best but the veteran is a complete non factor on offense and, despite being a strong team defender, does not move his feet well. Sullinger meanwhile seems to be one of the only Celtics actually grasping the team's defensive concepts, and does a multitude of other things well on both ends of the floor. He moves well without the ball, passes well, and carves out space on both the offensive and defensive boards. With Brandon Bass struggling and Collins a non factor on offense it may be time to give Sullinger another run with the starters. This would also enable the Celtics to bring Collins in to anchor the defense when KG goes to the bench, the time at which Boston's D typically falls apart.
What It Means
They didn't look as bad against the Grizzlies as they did in the previous three losses, but the Celtics are completely lost right now. They played better defense in the second half, but they still have no clue how to get out of their own way, and always seem to do the exact wrong thing at the exact wrong time. The loss drops them to 14-17, good for ninth place in the Eastern Conference. If the season ended today Boston miss the playoffs for the first time in six years.
The Celtics get another chance to right the ship when they take on the Indiana Pacers on Friday, January 4th, with tip-off set for 8 p.m. from TD Garden. It's a another tough test, but at some point the Celtics are going to have to respond to challenge.
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